In late August, southern Texas braced for the most catastrophic storm in the state’s history. Hurricane Harvey’s slow, meandering path caused damage worse than anyone had imagined.
“Harvey flooded our home with several feet of water,” said Houston resident Liana Wang ‘20 in an interview with The Politic. “Many of our neighbors had to evacuate their homes via helicopter lifts, if they were lucky, or boats from volunteers.”
Many Texans were left to fend for themselves as the destruction overwhelmed first-responders. Road closures stranded residents in their homes as floodwaters steadily rose.
The county seat of Harris County, Houston was the most densely populated area in Harvey’s path. Over the course of four days, Harvey dumped one trillion gallons of water there—the amount of rainfall Harris County typically receives in a year.
“After the rain slowed, we did our best to remove as much water as possible, but all our furniture had been damaged already,” Wang said. “My family can no longer occupy the house, had to stay at the home of a friend, and are now looking for a place to live while we assess our options moving forward.”
The Harris County Flood Control District estimates that more than 136,000 structures flooded across Harris County.
“There was a pretty significant impact upon most of the homes, with several neighborhoods across Houston flooding as bayous overfilled the banks,” Wang recalled. “Two reservoirs near the city also overflowed with the intense amount of rain, endangering nearby homes even as the Army Corps of Engineers released controlled amounts of water into the bayous to keep the dams from breaking.”
Harvey delayed Wang’s return to Yale by several days.
Making landfall as a Category 4 Hurricane with winds of 130 miles per hour, Hurricane Harvey devastated southeast Texas. Harvey drifted around southern Texas for days as it weakened from hurricane to tropical storm. As a tropical storm, Harvey dropped 40 to 52 inches of rainfall in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana, breaking all continental U.S. rain records. The storm triggered flash flooding in parts of Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
Wang watched firsthand as her city of Houston scrambled to prepare for Harvey.
“In terms of preparation in the days, or even weeks, before the storm hit, I’m not sure what being truly prepared would have looked like,” she reflected.
Universities play a key role in keeping people safe during natural disasters. Back in 2004, Hurricane Katrina forced Tulane students to transfer to other schools for the remainder of the semester. In addition to property damage, the university suffered enrollment losses when some students did not return. At the University of Houston, the administration faced the difficult task of keeping over 40,000 students safe while protecting the campus facilities.
“I feel safe on campus,” said Shyy. “They built the campus at a higher elevation because they know what can happen and they want to keep the students safe, so luckily the school didn’t flood, but areas around it were affected heavily.”
The University mandated that all students stay in their dorms for the duration of the storm. Shyy watched from his room’s window as the empty streets of Houston filled with water.
Cities like Houston lack the necessary infrastructure to handle intense coastal flooding. Houston channels water through bayous that run through the city. The rainfall from Harvey caused the bayous to overflow; water had nowhere to go except into the city itself.
Houston’s drainage infrastructure is so outdated that some experts, like Phil Bedient, a Rice University environmental engineering professor, have called Houston America’s most flood-prone city. Houston has 2,500 miles of bayous and channels, stormwater retention basins, and a pair of reservoirs. But Houston’s geography works against its drainage system. Between its flat coastal plain and non-absorbent soil, overflow inevitably leads to floods.
Perhaps the most dangerous infrastructural failure during Hurricane Harvey was the flooding of Houston’s highways. As homes and buildings in southern Texas began to fill with rainwater, University of Houston freshman Jonathan Shyy recalled the dangers of flooded infrastructure in an interview with The Politic.
“People got stuck in their homes and they couldn’t leave because the highways were closed,” he recalled. Closures left residents stranded in dire situations, often requiring helicopter rescues.
“It seems like unchecked and unregulated development is putting people at risk,” Wang posited, calling for better evaluations of floodplains and zones of risk as well as improved drainage infrastructure in the older parts of the city.
As superstorms and hurricanes become more powerful, east and gulf coast cities need to invest in infrastructure that can handle regular hurricanes. Some developers in the Houston area now build with flood risks in mind. Despite the high cost of safety precautions, immediate investment in flood resiliency would prevent the need for more expensive measures down the road. Adding better drainage infrastructure beneath many of the older roads and neighborhoods in the city would be a short-term inconvenience in exchange for long-term security.
Like Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico were unprepared for what hit them.
Hurricane Irma was one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded. Maintaining 180 mile per hour wind speeds for thirty seven hours, Irma set a worldwide record as the most intense storm of that length. It made landfall on Sunday, September 10, ravaging the Florida Keys and both Floridan coasts. The financial services company, Corelogic, estimates that Hurricane Irma incurred somewhere from 42 to 65 billion dollars in property damages.
Ten days later, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as the strongest storm to hit the island territory in nearly a century. All of Puerto Rico lost power. Though total property damage and the death toll are still unknown, officials report that the infrastructure losses could set Puerto Rico back for decades.
Three monumental storms in less than four weeks is far from the norm.
According to Trude Storelvmo, an associate professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Yale University, “this year is certainly an anomaly in terms of very destructive hurricanes.” Hurricanes may be episodic, but such destructive storms could become more common due to global warming.
Climate change is anthropogenic, or human influenced, and it affects climate systems all over the world.
Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, said in an interview with The Politic that “climate change…amplifies natural disasters…it makes them more intense, it makes them more severe, it makes them more destructive.”
Global warming heightens average atmospheric and ocean temperatures and intensifies storms. Climate scientists continue to investigate how the effects of climate change manifest themselves in natural disasters.
“Hurricanes are challenging for climate models to simulate,” Storelvmo explained. The best models predict that “the occurrence of Category 3-5 hurricanes will increase with continued warming.”
The strength and longevity of hurricanes increase with warmer sea surface temperatures (SST).
“We know very well that SSTs have been increasing,” said Storelvmo. “Tropical Atlantic SSTs are in fact anomalously high this fall.”
According to the Clausius-Clapeyron relation, with each degree of warming, the atmosphere can retain approximately seven percent more water vapor. Added heat and water in the atmosphere and warmer sea surface temperatures strengthen tropical storms and increase wind speeds. The warmer the atmosphere, the more water it can retain, leading to severe flooding episodes during tropical storms and hurricanes.
Tackling global warming grows increasingly daunting as the window of time for action narrows. Slowing the progress of climate change would require immediate international cooperation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale. away.
The critical first step, according to Leiserowitz, is to include global warming in everyday conversation. Doing so would allow at-risk communities to better assess their vulnerability to natural disasters with an eye towards the future.
“Talk about [climate change],” continued Leiserowitz. “The fact is that almost no one in America talks about it. They don’t talk about it with their friends and family, they don’t hear about it from the media. And if we don’t talk about it, it basically is out of sight and out of mind.”
While climate change might seem distant for some Americans, this hurricane season continues to prove that climate change is not out of sight nor out of mind for millions of Texans, Floridians, and Puerto Ricans. Leiserowitz urges preemptive action and thought.
“Preparedness is crucial, and building resilience is crucial because these impacts are coming and they are happening as we speak.”